Of course I can't say anything about the story, because anything I said would be a spoiler. And I certainly don't want to spoil anything this clever. So I'll just say that it goes a step beyond the ordinary action-game frame story, and then a step beyond that. And now I'll talk about other stuff instead.
The first other thing I have to say is... if you pick a good storyteller, you get a good story. Who would have thunk? This Prince of Persia is written by Jordan Mechner, the designer of the original 1987 Prince of Persia game. The same guy who then went on to create The Last Express.
I've already written too much about The Last Express. If you are interested in computer adventure games, you should play it. I'm not saying it's the greatest adventure game of all time; I'm not saying it's perfect. I'm just saying you should play it, because there are no other games like it. Mechner did something unprecedented (at least, unprecedented for a completed-and-released commercial project): an interlocking web of characters and storylines which you can touch and alter at any point. Albeit not in any way at any point.
Now, Prince of Persia is an action game, not an adventure game. You spend most of your time exploring environments and solving jump-and-climb environment puzzles; most of the rest of your time is spent fighting sand demons. Plot and character are worked into the cracks, in cut scenes and voice-overs. Nothing groundbreaking about that.
But it's a good story. I kept saying "Oh, how neat!" -- about the events I was seeing, not just about the (terrific) visuals. The designer really put in the effort to make an action-game plot into something more than ordinary. Simple game-mechanical requirements, like pause screens and save points and powerups, kept turning interesting. And then turning interesting again, after I thought I'd gotten used to the gimmick. And then coming together with story elements, to become even more interesting.
No, I won't give examples.
Prince of Persia is unabashedly influenced by Ico (another action game I deeply admire). The tremendous half-ruined desert fortress which you slowly work your way up through. The long, hazy vistas visible from the windows and roofs. The radiant sunlight, which pools and glows around the edges of things... okay, Ico did that better. Ico had a purer, simpler visual aesthetic, which worked well for its wordless fairy-tale motif. Persia tends towards the complex and opulent. But still very, very pretty.
Also, very very big. The fortress has a lot of up. By the last few scenes, I was feeling acrophobic. (The sense of danger is heightened by a subtle trick: the game's save-points, which are generously salted through most of the game, are quite far apart in that last long roof-climb. "Let's raise the stakes a little," as the Goblin King said. (Incorrectly, in his case, but accurate here!))
Prince of Persia is also like Ico in that it gives you a wonderful sense of being its protagonist -- purely through the body language, the exuberant motions and actions you control. In Ico, you are childlike and excited. In Persia, you are energetic and acrobatic and dextrous. It really comes across.
I think the designers managed it by making the controls approximate and forgiving, rather than precise and rigid. You don't have to have pinpoint timing to pull off all the jumping and swinging and bouncing that you need for this game. You have to hit the button at close to the right time, yes. But there's a fair margin for error -- the stunt always comes out perfect, unless you're off by a mile. Result: I was bouncing around like a crazed juggler, and I felt perfectly confident and in control. Score one for good interface design.
The fight scenes are more frustrating. I always find it a little sad, when I play a game like this: I know there are people who would appreciate the story and the exploration, but who can't manage the fight skills.
(For some games, that person is me. Fatal Frame, I'm looking at you. Pointing and muttering at you, too.)
I was able to manage the fights in Prince of Persia. I'd have been just as happy without them, but I guess the game would have been unhappily short. And the fight cinematography was pretty cool.
(Want my quickie fight lesson? Skip this paragraph if you don't... okay. In the early part of the game, use the vault attack constantly. The more time you spend airborne, the less the baddies can hit you. Finish them off when possible; they won't attack while you're retrieving sand. Later, you meet guys who knock you out of the air if you try the vault. (The tall ones with polearms and the fat ones with scimitars.) With these, stay near the wall and use the wall-rebound attack constantly. If they get you down and start pounding you snotless, rewind. That's it. I didn't use the defensive block at all, not until the very final battle.)
The characters are fun to listen to, although nothing spectacular or heart-rending. I laughed a few times, I winced a few times. I gave a damn what was going to happen to them, which is, I guess, all they really needed.
And the ending made me say "Mm-huh."
I'm pleased. I burned a very nice weekend. I want Mechner, and Persia's design team, to do more games.
(And this week, both the online Myst and the new Legacy of Kain game are coming out... should take care of my weekends for the rest of the year...)